Multicultural Counseling: the Ultimate Guide

Multicultural Counseling: the Ultimate Guide

multicultural counseling
multicultural counseling

School districts throughout the United States are turning to a relatively new type of counselor to deal with changing student demographics. Multicultural counseling addresses historical inequalities in the education system by creating equal footing for students no matter their race, ethnicity, class or religion.

School counselors working with multicultural students use the latest research, pedagogical methods and communication skills to help teachers and students improve educational outcomes.

Counselors and administrators have used the Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education to inform their work since 1995. Professor James A. Banks of the University of Washington created these guidelines in the nascent period of multicultural counseling.

These five dimensions include:

  • content integration
  • knowledge construction
  • prejudice reduction
  • equity pedagogy
  • empowering school and social structures

By addressing these dimensions, a counselor can effect real change in students who are often left behind (source).

A multicultural counseling expert does not work in a vacuum. Each school acts as an intersection of social, cultural, economic and political tensions. A counselor evaluating a student or working with a teacher confronts challenges every day.

Click here to read everything you need to know about why you should earn an MSED in School Counseling.


implicit bias

Implicit Bias in Education

Teachers, principals and school counselors may not be aware that they enter their student relationships with hidden biases.

The phrase “implicit bias” refers to the subconscious or involuntary beliefs that can prejudice relationships, making multicultural counseling even more challenging. Implicit biases do not emerge from places of hatred or bigotry. They are subtle manifestations of cultural beliefs gathered over years of learning.

In the educational environment, an implicit bias about a particular race, gender, religion or another group can be as damaging as explicit biases. A school counselor may use how a student dresses, speaks or learns to provide substandard advice despite their best intentions.

Counselors need to recognize demographic realities and their implicit biases if they want to be successful in multicultural counseling.

Demographic Divisions

A large-scale challenge to battling implicit bias comes from how teachers relate to their students. The Pew Research Center used national education data from the 2015-2016 school year to look at teacher and student diversity (source).

In short, the nation’s teachers were not nearly as diverse as public school students. This disparity extended beyond classroom teachers and included counselors and administrators in the study period.

The study found that 39% of all Americans and 51% of all public school students were black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and Alaskan native. However, these nonwhite groups only represented 20% of all public school teachers in 2015-2016.

National statistics found that 31% of city school teachers were nonwhite, while 11% of rural school teachers fell into these demographics. The gap between the racial backgrounds of teachers and students creates increased opportunities for implicit bias to impact outcomes, creating a strong need for more multicultural counseling.

Teacher diversity in schools with 90% white or 90% nonwhite students was also lacking in the Pew Research Center study. Fifty-five percent of nonwhite teachers taught in schools with 90% or more nonwhite students.

The study determined that 98% of white teachers taught in schools with 90% or more white students. With such little crossover, teachers and other staff members are unlikely to challenge their implicit biases on a regular basis.

There is also a gender imbalance between student and teacher populations. Like the overall population, public school students are split roughly evenly between male and female students without including other gender identities. But approximately 75% of public school teachers are women, introducing potential gender biases to the swirl of other implicit biases in schools.


multicultural counseling tools

Tools to Counter Implicit Bias

The Pew Research Center study offers a glimmer of hope in the long-term trend toward a more diverse educational staff. At 20% in 2015-2016, the percentage of nonwhite teachers is higher than the 13% during the 1987-1988 school year, but it’s still a lower number. Educators interested in multicultural counseling successes need to work faster than history in increasing teacher diversity to help eliminate biases of all types.

The first step is to recognize where implicit biases may appear in student counseling work. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project features an implicit bias quiz useful to educators and in multicultural counseling (source). This quiz asks for the rapid categorization of images and words that reveal biases based on race, gender and appearance.

After acknowledging biases, counselors and teachers need to actively counter stereotypes and treat students as individuals. Counseling departments can hold regular discussions that challenge implicit biases in assessments of and conversations with students.

Evaluating each student based on their unique family life, interests and behaviors also prevents grouping students into broad categories.

Click here to read everything you need to know about transitioning from being a school teacher to a school counselor.


multicultural counseling difficulties

Confluence of Difficulties for Multicultural Students

A major obstacle to treating students as unique individuals is that each student comes to school with complex backgrounds. Many things factor in to what a student brings into the classroom:

  • Family composition
  • Income
  • Immigration status
  • Language
  • Neighborhood
  • Different psychological makeups
  • Interests
  • Proficiencies

We can use poverty and immigration as examples of potential difficulties for student counselors focused on multicultural counseling.


The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) offers a stark view of the class divisions in American education (source). The NCCP reported in 2018 that 41% of all children in the United States came from low-income families or families earning twice the federal poverty threshold.

This share amounted to 72.4 million children nationwide. Nineteen percent of children qualified as poor with their families falling under the federal poverty line.

The National Career Development Association (NCDA) published a 2018 report highlighting the challenges and opportunities in working with low-income students (source).

NCDA acknowledged that students from families in poverty traditionally have higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement levels than other cohorts. These students also lack career resources and models for the full range of career options post-graduation.

Student counselors looking to strengthen their multicultural counseling skills can help low-income students by:

  • Guiding students through online tests, assessments and career events to show what is possible
  • Partnering with teachers and career education experts in the community to raise awareness of long-term options
  • Recognizing financial limitations but encourage students to be their own advocates by boosting confidence


The University of California, Los Angeles, Civil Rights Project surveyed 5,400 educators to learn how first-generation immigrants fare in public schools (source). This survey spanned 730 schools in 12 states with a focus on regional diversity.

A sample of the results shows the daunting task facing educators trying to guide students from other countries:

  • 90% of educators observed emotional and behavioral issues among the children of immigrants with 25% noticing severe issues
  • 84% of educators noted that immigration enforcement was a common concern among students with 36% acknowledging frequent mentions
  • 70% of educators reported declining academic performance by children of immigrants as compared to other students

Educator and policy analyst Janie Tankard Carnock has written about how educators can respond to these challenges (source). Teachers, administrators and school counselors need to act as partners with families to acknowledge obstacles and create solutions.

A welcoming environment open to all allows students to focus on school rather than outside threats. Carnock also advocates for staff awareness of these issues made possible through regular discussions about experiences in the classroom.

Multicultural counseling can facilitate open discussions and a safer atmosphere, allowing students to feel more comfortable and ready to learn.


multicultural counseling stakeholders

Public Education Stakeholders

The students and staff members in a school are not the only people who have an interest in education. Parents and state education agencies are examples of other stakeholders with significant interest in educational outcomes.

The primary responsibility of a school counselor is to help all students achieve their potential. Counselors—particularly those interested in multicultural counseling—may face external challenges to their work, but the following stakeholders can help them in their mission.


Teachers and counselors often deal with parents in difficult situations. In good times, a student returns home with a great report card or an enlightening career assessment to show their parents.

But often, parent-teacher meetings and direct conversations between counselors and parents take place due to student behavioral or performance issues. This trend means that parents and educators can have contentious relationships due to streams of negative feedback.

Multicultural counseling professionals need to know that parents strongly support their schools. A 2017 Hart Research Associates survey of 1,200 parents of public school students revealed positive views of teachers and counselors (source).

  • 73% said their schools offered a high-quality education
  • 62% held providing equal opportunity in education as their highest priority
  • 74% expressed concern about staff cutbacks

Parents want to be engaged by teachers and school counselors involved in their students’ education. Counselors can follow advice from Faye Arco—a former finalist for the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) School Counselor of the Year award—on how to incorporate parents more fully in the multicultural counseling and learning process (source):

  • Add office hours before and after school for unscheduled meetings with parents to accommodate work schedules
  • Record bilingual summaries of informational sessions for parents unable to attend
  • Refer parents and students to community organizations for volunteer and internship opportunities
  • Send regular surveys to parents asking about counselor performance along with desired resources

Education Agencies

State education agencies set certification standards for every school counselor. There is no unified certification standard for the profession, adding a layer of difficulty to counselors as they advance through their careers.

The ASCA published a state-by-state guide in 2018 that shows the differing standards facing counselors (source). A sampling of certification standards makes it clear that counseling is treated differently in each state:

  • Alaska
    • Minimum of a bachelor’s degree with K-12 certification
    • No experience or examination requirements
  • New York
    • Either complete registered counseling program, bachelor’s degree with 30 hours of graduate work or NBPTS school counselor certification
    • PreK-12 certification
    • No experience requirements except for second option (approved internship or one year of full-time counseling work)
    • No examination
  • Ohio
    • Master’s degree
    • 600 hours of K-12 student work along with an internship, two years teaching or three years counseling
    • NTE or Praxis II exam
    • K-12 certification

These varying standards along with limited reciprocity between states means limited job mobility. State counselor standards also change over time to reflect cultural shifts and new pedagogical research. Graduate programs, like the online MSED in School Counseling from St. Bonaventure University, meet the highest current standards for counselors.

Incoming and experienced counselors can treat these changes as opportunities to break free from old thinking about subjects like multicultural counseling.


funding challenges

School Funding Challenges

Teachers, parents and public officials alike know the difficulties in funding schools and how programs for multicultural counseling are often deprioritized.

In the United States, public school funding comes from property taxes, bond measures and state revenue sharing. These funding mechanisms mean that annual budgets are sensitive to the whims of voters and the swings of the global economy. Multicultural counseling is often lumped with other initiatives that are deemed less important than reading, writing and arithmetic during lean times.

Budget Cuts Impact Student Success

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) studied local and state education funding from 2008 to 2015 (source). During this period, 29 states had per-student funding levels that were at or below rates from 2008. Nineteen states also experienced local funding cuts that exacerbated per-student funding levels.

CBPP’s report determined that inflation-adjusted funding per student at the state level dropped by $800 from 2008 to 2013. Local funding per student dropped by $200 during the same period.

The Urban Institute went back further to look at per-student pupil funding for public schools (source). From 1995 to 2015, funding rates grew from $10,014 to $13,404 with a peak of $13,701 in 2009. The trend line is a steady slope upward from 1995 to 2009 with a slight cratering during the Great Recession.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found steady improvement in reading and math scores among students aged 9 and 13 but no change for students aged 17 (source). This study used data from 1972 to 2012.

The Economic Policy Institute noted a growth of low-income public school students and a growing gap between high-income and low-income students (source).

These reports show that school counselors confront external factors in addition to multicultural counseling challenges.

Impacts on School Counseling

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers a rosy outlook for school counseling as a profession (source).

The BLS projected an 8% job growth from 2018 to 2028, exceeding the 5% growth across all occupations. An estimated 27,200 counseling positions could open in school districts across the country. Increased enrollments in city districts along with attrition due to retirements should open jobs for graduates.

School counselors earned an average of $63,280 in May 2018, according to the BLS. This average exceeded the $38,640 median for all occupations in the same period.

These salaries are often defined in state education timetables or district-level contracts that change less frequently than other budgetary concerns. Counselors need to use skills learned in graduate programs to ensure multicultural counseling standards are met even when funding is stretched to its limits.


multicultural counseling ratio

Student-Counselor Ratios

A direct impact of the school funding issue is the number of counselors available to serve students and provide multicultural counseling in each school district.

The National Association of College Advisor Counseling (NACAC) and the ASCA published a report highlighting the worsening student-to-counselor ratio nationwide (source). This report used state-by-state data from 2004 to 2014 to calculate trends in this important ratio.

National Trends

NACAC and ASCA recommended a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio in their report (source). The national ratio during the 2013-2014 school year was 491:1.

Over the decade in question, the ratio reached as low as 457:1 in 2008-2009 and as high as 491 in 2013-2014. The report concluded that only New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming fell at or below the recommended ratio.

During the period in question, total enrollment in public schools increased by 3%. There was only a 2% growth in the number of counselors, contributing to a 1% increase in the student-to-counselor ratio.

The impact of these shortages are felt especially in today’s world where a more diverse population requires more opportunities for multicultural counseling.

School District Ratios

The Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire published a report that drilled further into counselor ratios at the school district level (source).

This 2016 report found that 17.8% of districts nationwide met or exceeded the 250:1 recommended ratio. Rural school districts fared better than city districts with 25.5% of the former achieving the recommended ratio compared to 4.2% of the latter.

The report concluded that 89.2% of districts employed at least one counselor with percentages ranging from 76% in the West to 94.2% in the Northeast. Public school students may have access to multicultural counseling, but the quality of services varies greatly across the country.

Examples of High and Low State Ratios

On a state-by-state basis, the student-to-counselor ratio varied from 200:1 in Vermont to 924:1 in Arizona (source). The 10-year ratio changes varied from 114% growth in Louisiana to a 53% reduction in the District of Columbia.

The lowest ratio during the study period was 60:1 in Rhode Island during the 2005-2006 school year. California easily reached the highest ratio at 1,016:1 during the 2010-2011 school year.

The District of Columbia was proactive in adding counselors in response to enrollment increases. Over the study period, public school enrollment grew by 6%. The number of school counselors grew by 127% over the same period. The ratio in DC public schools dropped from 775:1 in 2004-2005 to 361:1 in 2014-2015.

Sharp funding declines and drops in enrollment led to Louisiana’s sharp growth in student-to-counselor ratios. The state’s public school enrollment dropped by 1% from 2004-2005 to 2014-2015. Counseling personnel declined by 54% during the study period. Louisiana’s student-to-counselor ratio grew from 218:1 to 468:1, pushing the state far above the recommended ratio.

Impacts on Multicultural Counseling

School personnel working in multicultural counseling need more one-on-one and small group sessions to achieve their goals. The ideal student-to-counselor ratio is likely far below the NACAC and ASCA recommendations, but the national average is almost double that ratio.

Multicultural counseling experts are stretched thin and pushed to their limits to serve students who need specialized programs. School counselors who aren’t specialists in multicultural education may place some or all of the five dimensions on the backburner when pressed for time.

Students and parents may also view the student-to-counselor ratio as a sign that their needs aren’t being met. Bilingual students may receive cookie-cutter assessments rather than tailored multicultural counseling and advice that doesn’t help with their learning outcomes.

Learners who face bullying and intimidation due to their ethnicity, religion or gender identity may fall through the cracks due to limited staffing.

Programs like the online MSED in School Counseling from St. Bonaventure University educate counselors to achieve better results with limited resources.


multicultural counseling solutions

How Can You Find Solutions to Multicultural Counseling Challenges?

Challenges facing school counselors specializing in multicultural counseling are plentiful, but they are not insurmountable. The first step in solving any problem is understanding its dimensions and complexities.

Committed counselors work with their colleagues and learn new skills that improve their service to students of differing backgrounds. They learn to prioritize their students over office and external politics that can derail work toward the five dimensions.

Throughout their careers, school counselors train and focus on multicultural counseling to counter the tides of systemic issues that have troubled past generations of students. 


multicultural counseling st bonaventure university

Why St. Bonaventure University?

St. Bonaventure University has been teaching future educators since opening its doors in 1858. The university is a regional powerhouse with a No. 19 rank in Regional Universities North from U.S. News & World Report for 2019-2020 (source).

The school’s Franciscan values translate through all of its programs with public service and stewardship promoted to each student. These factors make the university’s online MSED in School Counseling the right choice for multicultural counseling aspirants.

Click here to get started on your online MSED in School Counseling today.


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